Yuval Noah Harari's appearance on The Waking Up Podcast to discuss his book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, hit on some of the most important matters of our time.
First and foremost, we must acknowledge the stories that we tell ourselves and be cognisant of their place in the modern day. Stories themselves are not a problem, human rights are a story, but the danger presents itself when stories are taken too seriously - a story about kicking a ball into a net and earning points can turn into fights between hooligans. Stories are far from the only tool we use to navigate the world, another would be the nuggets of supposed wisdom to guide our behaviour, “follow your heart”, but these too have limitations and are obfuscating the need for deeper conversations.
The importance of awareness of these guiding tools has increased recently. Individuals and organisations alike have been attempting to influence each other since the dawn of language, but whereas they worked poorly in the past and we could rely on the security of our own minds, we are now facing technology which can legitimately hack each of us and change our behaviour. This has placed democracy under threat as each of us is more susceptible to doing what others want.
The algorithms behind these manipulations don't even need to be perfect, and given the complexity of the mind likely never will be, they just need to be better than us and that's actually not very difficult. Our prospering is contingent on seeing where this technology best fits into society and work against where it can do the most damage. Our democracy would not have been possible before we developed the ability to communicate over long distances, transport physical items and information, and provide quality education to all. However, the trains or phone lines didn't care whether they were used to enable democracy or to embolden fascism.
AI presents risks on multiple fronts but the most immediate is it's ability to render great numbers of the population irrelevant, and the danger of irrelevance supersedes that of exploitation. At least those who are exploited are required - "They can't shoot all of us" as Professor Harari puts it. Much like most people accepted their military irrelevance, with elite individuals commanding increasingly smaller armies of humans and larger armies of robots and drones, we are facing mass economic irrelevance, and the current system isn't ready.
In trying to pre-empt the incoming mass unemployment, policies such as Universal Basic Income are being more seriously considered. While an important first step, universal basic income has some fundamental flaws, namely the universal and "basic parts. In practical terms the UBI being discussed is more national rather than universal as I cannot imagine much of the wealth will be shared amongst countries. Then one has to decide what constitutes "basic" requirements. It's a difficult thing to define, is cancer treatment "basic", or literacy? How about learning to code, or having your own bed?
To tackle these problems on a deeper level we need to introduce the concept of global identity. This would not replace those identities with which we currently live. Much like one can have a loyalty to themselves, their family, their business, and their country, we can bring about a stronger loyalty to humanity. There is more that unites us than divides us, and while the most important topics (ecology, science, and technology) are global interests, we must avoid the current purely national focus.
Counter-intuitively it is our strong sense of nationalism that should give us hope when pondering how we are going to deal with the three major global issues; nuclear war, climate change, and technological disruption. Our ability to care about hundreds of millions of people with whom we share our nation indicates that we have the ability to act beyond our evolutionary instinct to care only for those hundred or so people that we know.
The aforementioned three big issues will require global debate and long term thinking, but even if the US and China both agree not to use technologies such as CRISPR to create superhumans, without trust each will advance down these precarious roads so as to not fall behind the other. To see where trust can be established in the most unlikely of scenarios one needs only look at France and Germany which have historically great reasons to mistrust one another. Yet, both are entered into the EU with agreements on how they will act and have followed these shared guidelines amicably.
What we must do is see our place in affecting the political discourse. It is evident that our elected politicians are not willing to have these important conversations; AI may as well not exist within the houses of Parliament. However, if nothing else religion is an example of how a profound meme can be spread and shared across borders, and I see no reason why that would apply only to dogma founded in ancient writings. We can take control of the narrative, push for more discussion about these topics, and start the conversations ourselves.